OPINION | Participation grading biases students of color

Grace Chiong, Contributing Columnist

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Tulane’s participation grading policy negatively impacts students of color at a predominately white college. (Gabe Darley)

Given that “in-class participation” may often amount to a hefty 10-30% of overall class grades, it is critical to address the reality that students of color may not feel comfortable speaking up during discussions of race. 

At a predominantly white institution like Tulane University, white students make up over 60% of the undergraduate population while Black students make up a mere 9%. When these numbers communicate a clear need to diversify our campus, what is our institution doing to serve its current students of color? 

As a core curriculum requirement, all students must take a three-credit Race and Inclusion course of their choosing. From “Critical Race Theory” to “The History of Mardi Gras,” Tulanians are presented with a variety of options to study race. Course offerings like these demonstrate that although Tulane advocates for diversity, they fail to adjust their participation expectations. 

Contributing during in-class discussions appears to be a fair measure of knowledge of subject matter. If a student raises their hand and speaks, they demonstrate their grasp of the curriculum. While the logic behind this expectation is understandable, it does not take into account the potential hesitation of students of color, Black students in particular, to speak on behalf of their identity in a room full of majority white peers and majority white professors

If a member of any given racial, ethnic or religious group is the minority within their environment, they may be seen as a “spokesperson” for said group. This role is burdensome and is not only caused by an absence of diversity, but also stems from the contemporary lack of equitable opportunities for young Black adults to pursue higher education. 

Diverse in-class dialogues are principal to the process of life-long learning and should not be abandoned by predominantly white institutions. Rather, there are steps professors can take to ensure that students of color feel more comfortable contributing to sensitive discussions without feeling like it is their responsibility to speak on behalf of all people of color. 

According to Errick Farmer, a professor of professional leadership development at Florida A&M University, students of color who elect to attend PWIs commonly define their collegiate experience as “running the gamut between virtually being ignored in critical conversations and dialogue to essentially being sought after to serve as the spokesperson for their entire race.” 

In order to dismantle this reality, Farmer names three concepts as being imperative to the academic success of students of color: “peer support, a strong campus services support system and genuine faculty support.”

“It’s about making all students aware of the different tutoring options available on campus,” Farmer said. “It’s about promoting the available campus services to one’s students so they can connect with their peers, other college personnel, opportunities and, ultimately, their university.” 

While professors may judge participation on the basis of homework completion, weekly discussion posts via Canvas or attendance, others with more intimate classrooms make note of who participates during class discussions and who does not. Given Tulane’s smaller class sizes, Race and Inclusion courses may be challenging for students trying to reconcile participation and race. 

“Are all comments equal? What counts as a comment worthy of a good grade? How am I tracking the quality of comments, as opposed to the sheer quantity?” James Lang, director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence, said. 

In lieu of the arbitrary system described by Lang, there has been a recent push to explore other options, including self-evaluations and alternative assignments for students to receive credit on days they wished not to speak. Many students also urge their educators to clearly outline what they consider satisfactory participation in order to avoid excessive discomfort.

Although it remains to be seen how grading alternatives will function in their application, the emphasis on participatory grading is an unbalanced scale that deserves attention nonetheless. If Tulane students and professors fail to question the system nor improve it, the university as a whole may leave behind students who feel less inclined or less comfortable speaking up.